January 25th marks the 8th anniversary of the popular protests that brought an end to Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime. At the turn of 2011, almost three decades of worsening economic conditions, restriction of political space and gross abuses of human rights had left Egyptians – literally – hungry for change. However, eight years after the beginning of the 18 days that brought a country together and toppled a dictator, it seems like the cries for “bread, freedom and human dignity” have long been forgotten. Instead, Egypt is now in the midst of the worst human rights crisis of its history so far, political space has all but disappeared, and a faltering economy suggests that the country has gone back to square one. As President al-Sisi struggles to hold on to power, he increasingly relies on lawmaking to legalize his behavior and institutionalize authoritarian rule. In retrospect, it appears that Egypt is considerably worse off today than it was 8 years ago.
The 2011 popular protests that culminated in the removal of Hosni Mubarak undoubtedly led to a temporary reshuffling of the status quo, which opened up unprecedented opportunities for oppositional groups to enter politics. However, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ (SCAF) hijacking of the transitional process and Mohammed Morsi’s short spell in power revealed that very little had actually changed, with historical actors ultimately being the ones benefitting from the outcomes of the uprisings. The Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s leading Islamist movement, has come and gone, briefly rising to power only to be toppled by a coup d’état staged by the country’s armed forces. While the events of 2011 failed to bring about a new political order, the July 2013 coup and now-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rise to power arguably marked a new beginning for Egypt. More specifically, while al-Sisi’s rule is indeed reminiscent of modern Egypt’s military past, his repressive policies have so far failed to generate the loyalty that his predecessors could rely on, resulting in increasing attempts to legalize authoritarian rule.
Since coming to power al-Sisi has ruled with an iron fist, brutally repressing all of his opponents and eradicating any space for political dissent that had briefly emerged eight years go. Tens of thousands of Egyptians, ranging from Islamists, to journalists and unsuspecting citizens have been arrested, while hundreds have disappeared and just as many have been sentenced to death. Yet, despite the unprecedented levels of brutality, the president still appears vulnerable. The rais’ latest measures have been characterized by a somewhat extravagant streak, from suggestions that Egyptians should exercise more to plans for building a new, shiny capital from scratch in the middle of the desert. This all seem to suggest that, contrary to the strong image that al-Sisi is trying to project, he might be cracking under the pressure of being in charge of a country that is becoming more ungovernable by the day.
Blanketed by a State of Emergency, al-Sisi is quickly moving towards the institutionalization of authoritarianism in a bid to secure his rule. This is not necessarily a new technique, given that the seizure of extra-judicial powers to crack down on dissent in the face of crumbling legitimacy has been used as governance tool since the times of Gamal Nasser. However, while it is easy to draw parallels with the previous regimes, the latest developments in Egypt represent a significant qualitative shift. Though there is an undeniable element of historical continuity, al-Sisi is trialing new experimental practices of power-building, as the regime attempts to circumvent the rule of law to institutionalize authoritarian rule.
Measures to tackle this authority crisis include reforms of the Egyptian constitution that would retrospectively expand the presidential terms to 6 years, meaning that al-Sisi could be in power until 2026, rather than 2022. Proposed amendments are also set to drastically reduce the size of parliament, and to oversee the creation of a “High Council for the Protection of the Constitution” that comes with a unique catch: al-Sisi would head it for life, regardless of whether or not he remains president. All the while, the security apparatus has already been granted expanded authority to control civil society with little to no oversight. A broadened definition of “terrorism” now allows for the military trial of civilians in military courts, and prescribes a prison sentence of up to 10 years for anyone who is part of a group that “harms national unity or social peace”. Moreover, recent legislations, such as the NGO Law and the Protest Law, heavily police freedoms of assembly and expression, essentially eliminating political space.
Yesterday night, reports of increased security measure across the country’s public spaces revealed the regime’s anxiety on the eighth anniversary of the 2011 uprisings. There has been no official call for mass demonstration, but hidden pockets of dissent still exist outside of the public eye. It is undeniable that al-Sisi’s repression through lawmaking has almost completely eliminated what little gains were made eight years ago. However, Egypt’s long history of resistance is witnessing activism assuming new forms, as mobilization against the regime slowly seeks alternative strategies and platforms. Eight years on, it is still unclear what will be harder to uproot: the obstinate survival of the deep state, or Egyptians’ unwillingness to give up hope.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)